Nigel Henderson argues that England might benefit from a change of approach from at least one batsman at the top of their order.
Stable top: Cook’s stickability would allow another opener to go hell for leather
A number of Guerilla Cricket listeners, not to mention one or two contributors, have in the last few months questioned the continued selection of Alastair Cook as an England opener. They argue that 12,179 Test runs – the sixth highest in history – 32 hundreds, 56 fifties and an average of a tad more than 45 do not entitle him to an ongoing presence at international level. They point to an unsuccessful Ashes, take away the odd double century (one of a handful in his five-day career), claim his eyes are going – at the advanced age of 33 – and suggest that he is keeping emerging talent from getting an opportunity. All this while seemingly ignoring that England are finding it hard enough to find a partner for him at the top of the order in the first place.
It’s true that only one of his past ten Test innings has brought a fifty – 70 against Pakistan in the first innings at Lord’s this summer – and that five of those innings have ended in single figures but it is also true that bowling attacks have generally been on top in England this season and few left-handers, even ones as experienced as Cook at the highest level, would have dealt with the identikit deliveries from Ravi Ashwin that dismissed him at Edgbaston.
Besides, the last time that Cook scored so sparingly over ten innings, he bookended that period with double hundreds – in Birmingham and Melbourne; maybe another one is just round the corner. And seeing that we regularly chastise Joe Root for failing to turn fifties into hundreds, ignoring his incredible consistency, it seems churlish to similarly lament a run of low scores from Cook if every few Tests he produces a really big one that could set up a great victory or stave off a humiliating defeat.
So, in case you haven’t guessed, I am greatly against suggestions that Cook should make way for anyone; that would surely just embolden England’s opponents more than they have been by watching the players that have served to accompany him to the middle on an opening morning in recent years fail their auditions,
But given the fact that the likes of Sam Robson, Adam Lyth, and Mark Stoneman have been reduced to walk-on parts, is it time to rethink the opening question altogether? Do we need two specialists, especially if most of those chosen seem ill-equipped for the role at Test level. With the stability, on paper at least, of a Cook, don’t we need perhaps to experiment with those already in the team? A Test pinch-hitter, perhaps, with licence to thrill, knock some shine off the ball, flash hard so that edges fly over the slip cordon and maybe force their rivals’ captain to think outside the box.
A Bairstow or a Buttler then? Maybe even a Vince. These are guys who will chase the ball outside the off stump anyway, why not encourage them to go after it rather than just prod at it.
Would you not lose the argument if you tried to claim that either of this trio would have fared worse than the present incumbent Keaton Jennings? In his two attempts at Test cricket – albeit that the first, running from December 2016 to August 2017, was split, because of the Champions Trophy, by a long absence of England from the five-day arena – his returns have progressively failed to suggest that he could be the long-term answer. His hundred, on debut, and a subsequent fifty seem like dwarf planets expelled from a solar system because of new scientific discoveries. His last 12 innings have elicited a total of 217 runs at an average of barely 19 – and no half-centuries. And he does not have Cook’s body of work to speak up on his behalf.
In such circumstances, is not the specialist opener who is not performing a luxury? And in circumstances that seemingly require us to find a place for Ben Stokes if only to maintain or restore his mental health – you can argue about this one between yourselves – isn’t it even more crucial that form players are included? Carpe diem, and all that.
Quite rightly, the decision to include Stokes in place of Sam Curran has been questioned. Curran is on a roll, he seems the perfect fit for Test cricket temperamentally even if there are some reservations about his pace and ability to swing the ball when conditions are not in his favour, and yet he is banished. Surely, after the more experienced Chris Woakes staked an unbudgeable claim to his place after being recalled, Ollie Pope should have been the one to make way. Not that Pope did anything wrong – he looks the part, has had a taste of the big time and need only be reassured that his time will come again, perhaps sooner rather than later. But if not Pope, why not Jennings?
There have been selections that have surprised this season, even shocked. There are selections that have come from the gut more than the head. The pinch-hitting Test opener’s day may have come. Too soon? The game is changing very rapidly anyway.
And a final point about Cook. His Test career has lasted only 12 years. Those above him in the list of leading scorers have all had longer exposure, time-wise at least, toat the highest level of the game:, Rahul Dravid 16 years, Ricky Ponting 17 years, Jacques Kallis 18 years, Sachin Tendulkar an eye watering 24 years; only Kumar Sangakkara, whose Test career spanned 2000-2015, played fewer Tests. He could ascend to the head of that list if claims about his diminishing abilities are not taken too seriously by those in charge.